It took some effort to find him, and that was, strangely, a relief to Clark. He wasn't used to anything taking much effort anymore. Of course, once he did locate Lex, it took hardly the blink of an eye to reach Marrakech from Metropolis, and not much longer to find the little cafe that he frequented. It was on the edge of the main city square, shaded by elaborate fringed curtains; even at noontime, you could look comfortably out at the busy stalls and their customers teeming beneath a blue sky more intense than anything Clark had ever seen, except from space. Clark, however, was not interested in looking out.
Many people were seated at the tables, having sought out shelter from the late spring warmth that Clark registered but didn't feel. Lex was there, too, sprawled in a chair, wearing wrinkled white linen, with a hat tipped over his eyes and a tiny cup of strong-smelling tea in front of him. He wasn't wearing his ring. That was good--it was the only remaining shard of kryptonite in private possession, and it could have been a problem--but Clark still frowned as he saw him. After all, finding him was the easy part.
He moved to the table. "Lex."
Lex didn't even glance up. "Well," he said, "fancy meeting you here. Care for a cup of tea?"
That wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting at all, and the surprise led him into taking the seat opposite. The waiter, apparently well-trained, immediately appeared with a cup and just as immediately disappeared. Clark took a sip; it was minty and sweet, so sweet that he coughed.
"It takes a little getting used to," Lex said. "I spent the summer after my mother died here, drinking far too much of it."
His tone was insanely blase, given that he was talking to his arch-enemy. Clark, however, had no interest in casual chat about tea. He put down the cup and said firmly, "Lex, you need to come back home."
That got a quick glance at him before Lex's eyes rose to the mosque of reddish stone that towered above the city. "This role used to be played by one or another of my father's goons, you know," he remarked. "But I'm assuming he can't have dispatched you from beyond the grave."
"Of course he didn't. No one else sent me, either. I'm here of my own accord."
"And why would that possibly be?" Lex mused. "Is your life too dull without Lex Luthor to kick around anymore?"
Clark felt the dull anger Lex's needling so often evoked, but Lex didn't even seem to be looking for it. "I don't need you to provide me with entertainment, Lex."
"Then what could prompt you to interrupt my vacation?"
"Vacation? It's been four months. No one at LexCorp has any idea when you're coming back."
"I'm forty-five years old, Clark, and I haven't had a serious vacation in twenty years. I think I'm entitled to four years if I want them."
"Have you seen what's going on in the world? What your...your replacement is doing?"
"Actually, I haven't seen a paper since I left Metropolis. It's not to your liking? That hardly strikes me as a change."
"He's keeping up the value of the stock, I'm sure, Clark. He's very good at that."
"Yes, but--" Clark leaned forward, frustrated, uncomprehending. "How can you just walk away from your responsibilities like this?"
Lex's eyes turned cold. "Don't talk to me about responsibilities, Clark. Superman may save the world on a regular basis, but he gets to come home and be mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. I'm Lex Luthor, always and everywhere. There was only one way for me to have a break, and so I took it."
Already Lex's attention was slipping away again. "If you want to call it that. Now, if you don't mind, it's time for my afternoon siesta."
"Can I suggest some sights for you to see while you're in town? It's a pity to come all this way and not see the place properly. Even for you."
"No." Clark set his teeth. "I didn't come here to be a tourist."
"Pity." Lex rose languidly. "Goodbye, Clark."
As Lex strolled out into the blinding midday light, he seemed almost translucent where it hit his pale skin. He was thinner than Clark remembered, but he moved with the same ease. As clumsiness had fallen away from Clark over the years, the human ability to achieve grace, physical or intellectual, surprised him more and more. Lex had once told him about the ideal of sprezzatura, the art of seeming artless. Clark was beyond that now; he didn't need any art. That humans could cultivate it was a source of distant wonder to him--when it succeeded, at least.
Lex only glimmered in the heat for a minute, though, before he ducked out of sight.
Clark put out two major forest fires while waiting for Lex to wake up from his nap. Pete kept telling him that global warming was making the fires more likely, but the world governments had been stalled at Kyoto III for years now. The industrialized nations against the developing, as usual. It was incredibly frustrating for Clark, and sometimes he quietly considered solving the problem in a way only he could--adjusting the planet's orbit or its spin.
What held him back, chiefly, was the murmurs he heard at the endless conferences. Did they really have a problem, the envoys of the conservative nations would ask, when Superman could take care of any crises that arose from the climate change?
Those voices were loud in his head as he returned to the city at dusk, noticing this time the delicate terra-cotta pink of the city walls. He thought it might be too early yet, so he resigned himself to sight-seeing. The bazaar was slowly winding down, and his eye was caught by a table full of intricately-carved hairbrushes. Most of the things he saw--enamelled jugs, sacks of strong-smelling spices, heavily-worked leather bags--were too elaborate or exotic for Lois, but there was something almost minimalist about the design of the brushes. He stopped and ran his finger over the back of one. Very smooth.
"Camel bone," the vendor said to him in accented English. "It will last forever."
He smiled and named an outrageous price. Clark shook his head. "I can't afford that."
"Well...take a seat. Have some tea. Perhaps we can talk about it, what you can afford?"
Three glasses of tea later, Clark was wearily pocketing the brush with an increased appreciation for American stores. He heard soft laughter as he turned away. Lex was standing there with his hands in his pockets. "Haggling is meant to be part of the fun, Clark," he said.
"It's a lot of work for fun."
"Well, you could always have offered to divert a river for him in return."
Clark sighed. "Are you ready to talk to me now, Lex?"
"If you feel like wasting your time. Come on."
Lex led him away from the souk back to the square. The orange-juice stands had vanished, replaced by a press of people out for their evening strolls. There were jugglers, acrobats, fire-eaters, magicians, people reciting poems, and their audiences. It was loud and the air was thick with incense, but when Clark looked over at Lex, he was surprised to see a gentle smile on his face.
"You like this, Lex?"
"Yes," he answered, nimbly stepping around a crowd of small children. "I do."
"It's the human condition, Clark. Wise men and fools, beggars and thieves, the charitable and the callous, lovers and fighters, all in one place. I like the spectacle."
Clark turned and scanned the crowd again. He was used to thinking in terms of crowds, masses of people to be saved or moved or calmed down. He didn't often stop to notice individuals, but with Lex's words in mind, they were suddenly bursting into his vision in breath-taking variety, face after face like flowers in an unruly garden. He wasn't, however, ready to concede any points to Lex. "Since when do you like only watching it?"
Lex's eyes gave away nothing. "It's amazing how little you usually see from my position in the world."
"That's not an answer."
"Did I promise you one?"
Lex turned into a narrow covered alley between weary stone buildings that led away from the square. There were many doors set into the walls. Above them, cloths dyed bright crimson or deep blue fluttered in the breeze. Unfortunately, the breeze smelled acrid, and Clark made a face.
"The dye-makers' quarters," Lex said over his shoulder. "Fantastic craftsmanship. Of course, the processes themselves aren't the most fragrant."
They walked for another ten minutes or so. Clark noticed that the doors were becoming less frequent, but the walls remained shabby. Finally, Lex paused in front of what looked like just another door. "This is it?" Clark asked, surprised. He had been expecting a remote villa with one of the typical Luthor impressive approaches across miles of lawn, not a cubbyhole in a warren.
Lex smiled briefly. "This is it."
He swung the door open, and they passed into an entrance hall of cool white stone with a high ceiling, two wrought-iron benches, and a blue-green tiled floor. It was much larger than Clark would have guessed from the outside. An arch led into a kind of garden, and Clark swallowed a gasp as they walked beneath it. The patio was square and open to the sky. At each corner grew an orange tree; he could smell the sweetness on every breeze. There was a stone fountain at the center. Walks wound towards it, surrounded on all sides by softly purple flowers that looked almost like folded bits of paper. There were arches off in every direction, and above each arch a balcony. Clark could catch glimpses of terraced roofs beyond. "Lex, this is...different."
"It's modelled on the Islamic ideal of the riyad, the closed garden," Lex said off-handedly. "I've been working on improving the flowers."
Clark had to laugh.
"It's just so...I was just going to say that this place didn't seem like a typical Luthor house, but maybe it's the most Luthor of all."
Lex frowned a little at this. "Perhaps." He walked around the edge of the square and through one of the arches to a bedroom. There was a low white bed, a wooden dresser and chair, and little else in the room, except for a reddish carpet worked with an intricate black diamond pattern on the floor. Lex sat down on the edge of the bed.
"All this resting," Clark said. "It's not like you."
"That's easy enough to say for a man who doesn't get tired." Lex slid off his shoes and rose again momentarily to take a bottle off the dresser. Clark could read the label easily enough. Darvocet. "What do you think of the place?"
"Drowning yourself in the exotic Orient with scent and color and narcotics. Seems pretty colonialist to me."
That drew a rueful smile from Lex. "You know, I've often thought my father was born into the wrong time. He should've been an Englishman in the late nineteenth century. He would have adored the lifestyle." He shook a handful of pills out. "I'm afraid I don't have much to entertain you with, but it was your decision to come here, after all."
Clark stared at the pills. He knew that Lex had done drugs when he was younger, but as far as Clark knew, he'd given them up the day of the accident in Smallville. "Lex, what are you doing?"
"It looks more like you're trying to achieve a coma."
"You say tomato, I say to-mah-to..."
This was exactly what he didn't need from Lex--from this gracefully indifferent shell of Lex. "Lex, this is beautiful, but it's not right. You need to come back to Metropolis."
"So you keep saying."
Lex moved to pop one of the pills into his mouth, and Clark caught his hand. Caught it and squeezed it, so the pills spilled onto the bed. "Stop it. Stop it and listen to me, Lex."
Lex's eyes flashed deadly, though he didn't struggle. Clark was glad to see it--glad to see any real reaction at all. "Let me go."
"Promise me you'll listen to me."
"Don't try to coerce me, Superman. I won't have a fucking alien charge into my bedroom and tell me how to live my life."
There was a rustle at the door. Clark looked up to see a slender young man with a shock of dark hair standing there. He said something to Lex, who answered, first shaking his head, then nodding. The boy left.
"What did he say?"
"He wanted to know if he should call Miss Rahma. Mercy." Lex's eyes glinted. "I told him that my guest would never disgrace himself by behaving rudely. Then he wanted to know if he should serve dinner. I told him yes."
Clark flushed and let Lex's hand go. "Mercy's here?"
"She's not supposed to be, but..." Lex fluttered a hand. "She is Mercy. Do you want to join me, or have you given up the habit?"
Clark actually hadn't eaten in...several weeks, he realized. The smell drifting through the room was delicious, even if his whole body didn't respond to it as it once had to the scent of his mom's cooking, stomach growling, mouth watering. "I'd like to try the local cooking."
Lex scooped up the pills. "We'll eat outside, then."
There was a table laid in the garden. They sat down, and the boy reappeared, carrying a heavy silver ewer on a tray. He handed each of them a sliver of soap from the tray. Clark glanced over at Lex, who was rubbing his palms with his, and imitated him. Lex held out his palms to the boy, and he poured water over them, his head bent with a look of peculiar concentration on the water streaming over the skin. When he was done, Clark went through the same step, though this time the boy's eyes were cool and indifferent.
"Thank you, Ishoa," Lex said.
Ishoa nodded and retreated, only to return with a thick, crusty bread and a strange, heavy dish with a conical lid. Lex removed the lid, and the smell of saffron drifted through the air. He reached into the pot and pulled free a tidbit of lamb, which he popped into his mouth.
"Use your right hand," Lex advised as Clark leaned towards the pot, "or you'll scandalize Ishoa."
The lamb was amazingly, meltingly soft in Clark's mouth, sweet and spicy. He eagerly helped himself to more, then used the bread to sop up the juices. Lex ate little himself, sitting much of the time with his head tilted back and his eyes closed.
When he was done, Clark settled back in his chair with another cup of the tea, which was growing on him. The flowers seemed to murmur at him with their gentle scent and color, urging him to relax. To forget why he was there. It was too easy, sometimes, to get so caught up in saving the world that he forgot to savor it. "This is beautiful, Lex," Clark said, and he opened his eyes. They were slightly glassy, probably from the pill. "I've been in this part of the world before--crime in the cities, natural disasters--but all I saw was poverty. I didn't know about this."
"The closed garden is meant to imitate the Paradise of the Koran, you know," Lex said dreamily. "But I think I prefer this to the real thing. Paradise just is. This was designed and built and kept by human hands."
Clark nodded. "Are all the houses like this?"
"The houses of the wealthy. We think of the Western world as civilized, Clark, but the Near Eastern civilizations are far older. They were reclining on couches in palaces listening to the finest poetry while our ancestors were running about wrapped in loincloths and jabbing spears at each other."
Clark thought about the slums he'd seen once in Casablanca. "They're in eclipse now, though."
"Of course." Lex smiled faintly. "The one lesson my father never cared to draw from history, the one he never tried to impress on me. All empires go into decline, even the mightiest. Whatever you build, time will someday undo." He focused on Clark, a speculative wrinkle appearing in his forehead. "Though perhaps not whatever you build."
Clark had only to look at his reflection in the lid of the pot to know what Lex was referring to. He still looked not a day over thirty. "Maybe." He tapped the table. "But LexCorp's not in decline, Lex."
"No," Lex agreed, not taking the bait. "It's not."
"So, what is all this, then? A fit of ennui?"
"Call it that," Lex said gently, leaning his head on his hand. "Call it that and go home, Clark."
Clark felt frustration, and maybe something like fear, though he wasn't sure he even knew how to recognize that emotion anymore. A Lex who wouldn't rise to an argument was a Lex he didn't even recognize. What would he rise to? "I didn't come here to pick the best name for your mood, Lex. I came because I wanted to tell you something."
"Yes," he said casually. "I'm thinking about taking over the world."
Lex's eyes darted up. "No, you're not."
"I've been thinking about it for years, Lex. All the time I spend dashing around the world, stopping criminals, averting disasters--I'm only responding to the symptoms. Maybe it's time to change the system."
"You wouldn't dare."
Clark shrugged. "Who would stop me?"
This Lex--his eyes filled with anger and determination--this Lex he recognized. "I would."
Even after all this time, there was a tiny burst of pride in his mind at outfoxing Lex. Not just overpowering him, but outthinking him. That was still an achievement to be savored, and Clark didn't have many of those left. "And that's why you have to come back to Metropolis, Lex."
Lex blinked, then laughed shortly, the only acknowledgement he'd get. "What are you talking about, Clark?"
"Do you have any idea how much more influential I've become since you ran away? The president, the U.N....no one is presenting them with compelling alternatives when they're making these decisions. Petersen certainly isn't. He's just another robber baron."
"And I'm not? It's a little late to be making that claim, Clark."
"No, you are. But you're also--you have a vision, Lex. You want to build a different world. I don't agree with your methods, or even most of your aims, but humanity needs that. I can't do it for them."
Lex laughed again. "So you're saying the world needs the creative tension between us? That's rich, Clark. After everything you've said about me, done to me--"
Clark leaned forward, choosing his words carefully. "I've never believed you were completely evil, Lex. I've seen people who live only to destroy, or who want nothing more from life than to hurt people. People who seek power for power's sake. People lost in their own pleasures. You're not any of those things."
"But you still left me," Lex said softly.
"You didn't give me much of a choice."
"Everyone has a choice, Clark. You looked at me, and you deemed me unworthy, and you left. You just flipped a switch and moved on, perfect alien that you are."
"You made your choices, too. Can you honestly say that I was unjust to you?"
"Justice." Lex grimaced. "The perfect and universal law. Sometimes people aren't looking for justice, Clark; they're looking for mercy."
"I did what I had to. But I didn't stop loving you, Lex. I never stopped--"
"Jesus!" Lex flung a hand up. "Is that your idea of mercy, Clark?"
The pain in his voice, direct and unfeigned--it was so much more than Lex had let him see when they'd parted, and Clark clung to it as proof of his theory. He caught Lex's hand, gently lowering it to the table. It was cool and dry. "You have to see, Lex. You have to see that I know you're different." He leaned over the table and kissed him.
Lex's lips were cool and dry, too. No longer smooth and slick and impossible to grasp. When Clark let him go, Lex swallowed. "Don't--don't lie to me."
"Lying's never helped us."
"Which hasn't stopped us in the past."
Clark kissed him again. "I can't lie like this," he whispered against Lex's mouth. "I never could. That's why I had to go."
"I haven't changed, Clark."
"But I have."
"I know," Lex murmured, and Clark felt something wet on his cheekbone. "I know."
Lex's bedroom was layered in deepening shadow. Lex, who shed his clothes with a casualness that suggested he no longer attached much importance to them, was pale and angular and brittle to the touch. Clark almost felt ashamed of the broad expanse of chest he didn't have to work to maintain, the healthy flush of his skin that defied all environmental damage. "You're really not human," Lex mused, touching the skin right above his heart.
And you really are, Clark could have said, looking down at the visible line of veterbrae, knobby and so easily twisted out of alignment. Instead, he kissed Lex's brow. He couldn't make himself into that; he could only try to help bring it out of Lex. Lex sighed, almost inaudibly, and let himself be guided down onto his back, boneless and receptive.
He was quiet at first beneath Clark, so quiet that Clark worried that he wasn't reaching him. He remembered all the eagerness of the old days, Lex greedy to have him all, his rhythm urgent whether it was fast or slow. Not like this, when Lex seemed more to be offering up all his surfaces for Clark to cling to than anything else. He glanced up, and Lex's eyes were almost closed, but he thought he saw a glimmer of skepticism beneath them still. However, when Clark slid down his body to suck him, they opened wide and Lex's breath became shallow and fast. As he came, Lex said, "Oh--fuck--Clark--" and there was something like a broken sob.
When Lex reached for him, he said automatically, "You don't have to--"
"Yes, I do. If you can't take it from me..."
Clark nodded. "Of course," he said, and gave himself up to Lex's deft strokes. No, it wasn't like before. Lex's touch was contemplative, as if time had ceased to matter for him. The ruthless gentleness was almost unbearable, devotion and torment at once, a plea for forgiveness and a refusal to submit to judgment. Clark groaned and arched into Lex's hand, trying to spur him on, but Lex was in no hurry, seeming to study the rhythms of Clark's body for some kind of sign. He had no idea how long it went on, until finally Lex had seen enough and whispered, "I believe you, Clark. I do." The relief was enough to finish him, and to make him see.
Afterwards, Lex lay with one arm behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. Clark carefully put an arm over his chest. "You're dying," he said. "I saw."
Lex didn't look at him. "Yes."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want your pity, Clark. I still don't."
Clark accepted this in silence--it was surprising how many times people had said that to Superman. "How long?"
"Six months. Perhaps."
"What about treatment?"
"With aggressive therapy, I might extend my life a little," Lex said. "My father chose aggressive therapy."
Clark remembered. Lionel Luthor hadn't been able to accept that his own body might be the thing to defeat him. He'd refused to sign a DNR. He and Lex had spent days in the hospital room, listening to his tortured breathing, waiting for him to die. Clark had sat outside a locked bathroom door listening to Lex throwing up so he wouldn't have to scream. "Wouldn't you at least rather be somewhere with better hospitals?"
Lex sighed and rolled over. "I'm not going back, Clark."
"No." Of course not. It had been a foolish question. Lex had turned his back on the world for good, come here to contemplate the end of empires and the beauty that survived them. He couldn't go back.
"I'm sorry. I can't be what you need me to be."
Clark shut his eyes. Eternity spread out before him, smooth and detached and featureless. "I know."
"But..." Lex took Clark's hand, put it against the back of his neck. "You can remember all this. You can't empathize with humanity in the abstract, Clark. No one can. But a man, in a time, a place..."
Clark tightened his fingers a little, feeling the bones there. All of humanity there, frail and complicated and beautiful. "Maybe."
"I don't know about the man, but the time and the place are as good as any in the world, I think. And..." Lex moved, reached underneath the bed. "There's this."
Clark felt the strange sickness as soon as Lex opened the box. "Your ring."
"It's what killed me, Clark. The radiation caused the cancer. If you need to remember weakness, loss, pain...here it is." He closed the box and put it into Clark's hand. Clark took it carefully, sitting up. The pain had not gone away, not really.
"I have to go," he said. "There's--"
"Duty calls. I know." Lex reached down to tug the blanket up over him. "I need to sleep, anyway."
"Is it all right for me to leave you here?"
"I'm not going to die tonight, Clark."
Not tonight, but some night, and soon--Clark's throat closed, and he touched Lex's shoulder. "I should have come here earlier."
A long pause, and he thought perhaps Lex had drifted off. "But I never thought you'd come at all," he finally murmured.
He winced, but there was no malice in the voice. "Lex."
"Promise me...you'll let me come back."
There was a low, sleepy chuckle in the dark. "Of course, Clark. Every hero needs a foil. And vice versa."